The Korean Independence Movement and Boston University

On March 1, 1919, a group of Korean intellectuals met at a restaurant in Seoul to formally introduce the Korean Declaration of Independence to the world.[1] This was a document inspired by President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, which he delivered in January of 1918 at the closing of World War I. Wilson’s speech was an ambitious program to reorient international affairs in the post-war period. And it was his call for the right of national self-determination from colonial powers that encouraged the leaders of the March 1st Movement, as it came to be called, to act decisively. The reading of the Korean Declaration of Independence that fateful day in the beginning of March sparked public protest against Japanese occupation. Japanese response against the countless demonstrations that broke out across Korea was quick and brutal.

Thousands of miles away, while all this was being reported in the newspapers of America, another important front in the movement for Korean independence was formed. In April, 1919, Philip Jaisohn (Seo Jae-pil), the first Korean to receive American citizenship, convened a meeting of Korean expatriates, immigrants, and Korean sympathizers in Philadelphia. Over 200 delegates gathered, with Philip Jaisohn, the president of the Korean Congress presiding, and Rhee Syngman (Yi Seung Man), the president of the Korean Provisional Government (KPG), giving a speech.[2] The main goal of the 1919 Philadelphia Korean Congress was to energize the Korean diaspora community in America and to mobilize American support for the Korean independence movement. The organizers of the meeting knew that they needed to win quickly the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans. That the gathering was held in Philadelphia was no coincidence, as conference leaders recognized the city as the “cradle of liberty.” After the sessions, they even went to see the signed Declaration of Independence.[3]

Christianity, too, would prove to be a force for independence. Many of the leaders of the Philadelphia congress were Western-educated elites and devout Christian converts.[4] Of the thirty-three signers of the Korean Declaration of Independence, sixteen were Christians and a number of them pastors.[5] Christian missionaries were also actively involved in the independence movement in Korea. Thus, the conference organizers consciously utilized the rhetoric of the double pillars of American society—freedom and Christian values. They were able to frame the narrative to appeal to American sensibilities of democracy while also highlighting the struggle as a moral cause, one with implications for the future of Christianity in Korea. In order to further public relations with an American audience, Philip Jaisohn and Rhee Syngman formed the League of the Friends of Korea in various parts of the country.

The Boston chapter of the League of Friends of Korea was founded on January 11, 1920, with ninety members.[6] One of the founders and key leaders was Rhee Syngman’s old acquaintance from his student days at Harvard, Yang Yuchan.

Korean Ambassador to the U.S., Dr. You Chan Yang.
Korean Ambassador to the U.S., Dr. Yang Yuchan.

Yang was from a family that had immigrated to Hawaii. At the age of twenty he won a scholarship to Boston University. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science and then went on to get an M.D. from the Boston University Medical School. In Boston, he spoke on numerous occasionsat churches, universities, and civic organizations on behalf of Korean independence. According to an article in the Korean newspaper Shin-Han-Min-Bo, there was a significant meeting of the League of Friends of Korea at Jacob Sleeper Auditorium at Boston University, where both Rhee Syngman and Yang spoke. It attracted a large number of local politicians, entrepreneurs, theological students from BU and Harvard; even some Japanese and Chinese students who supported Korean independence came.[7] There were also some notable figures in attendance. One was Homer B. Hulbert, a famous missionary and correspondent to the Times and Associated Press and close confidant of King Kojong of Korea. Hulbert was deeply involved in many League of Friends of Korea gatherings. Another was then president of BU and acting president of the Boston League of Friends of Korea, Lemuel Murlin.[8]

As an undergraduate at BU, Yang had attracted the attention of President Murlin, who when inquiring about Yang’s lodging, discovered he was living in the city’s red-light district. Murlin relocated him to a place in the School of Theology.[9] Murlin would go on to serve as the president of the Boston League of Friends of Korea.[10] Surely his relationship with Yang must have influenced him. But another important factor in President Murlin’s investment into the League of Friends of Korea was the number of BU alumni involved with   mission work in Korea, most notably George Heber Jones, a Methodist minister who was an early missionary to Korea and one of the pioneers of academic study on Korean culture and religious history.  He taught missions in the School of Theology at BU from 1915-1918.[11]

The relationship between Korean missionaries and the Korean independence movement is an interesting topic worthy of further research. An article printed on April 18, 1919, by the Boston Daily Globe (later to be known as the Boston Globe), reported the arrest of one Rev. Eli Mowry who was charged with harboring Koreans involved in the propagation of rebel activities against the Japanese government.[12] The article ended with the claim that while some missionaries seemed to be encouraging Korean independence activities, “the missionary body in Korea as a whole is not anti-Japanese.”[13] A few months later, this diplomatic gesture of neutrality by the missionaries would no longer be the company line. A report by the commission on relations with the Orient of the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America confirmed reports of Japanese atrocities against Koreans, even recounting in detail some of the gruesome acts. As reported by an article in the July 16, 1919 edition of the Boston Daily Globe on the commission’s findings:

“In certain villages all of the Christian men were summoned to meet in the local churches where they were fired upon by Japanese troops and the buildings burned to the ground with all occupants. Native women coming to learn the fate of their husbands were also massacred. From one hill, investigators were able to see nine burned villages, most of whose inhabitants were Christians.”[14]

The movement for Korean Independence benefited greatly from the relentless advocacy of the Korean diaspora community in America. Another article in the Boston Daily Globe told of Yang speaking at the Church of the Advent in Boston. His speech embodied all the elements involved in winning the hearts and minds of Americans for the cause: he told the stories of Japanese aggression against native Christians as well as tales of Christian missionaries being tortured on suspicion that they were fomenting rebellion. He broadened the scope of the plight by sounding the warning bells of increased Japanese aggression worldwide if somehow China, too, were to succumb to Japanese occupation. In making this argument, he globalized and universalized the conflict. In closing, Yang appealed to those gathered to join a Boston organization known as the “League of Friends of Korea.” [15] Soon, the Boston chapter would come to have over 1,500 members.

With the formation of the Republic of South Korea in 1951, its first president Rhee Syngman would remember his old friend and fellow diasporic leader and organizer. He appointed Boston University alumnus Dr. Yang Yuchan to be the first South Korean ambassador to the United States.

Researched by Paul Choi and Hajung Lee

Written by Paul Choi


[1] Richard S. Kim, “Inaugurating the American Century: 1919 Philadelphia Korean Congress, Korean Diasporic Nationalism, and American Protestant Missionaries,” Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 26, No. 1 (Fall, 2006), 50.

[2] Richard S. Kim, “The Globalizing of America,” Asian Diasporas: New Formations, New Conceptions, eds., Rhacel S. Parreñas and Lok C. D. Siu (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), 205.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 203.

[5] Ibid., 209.

[6] Shin-Han-Min-Bo, May 21, 1920.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Mary Van Rensselaer Thayer, “They Hate to Leave, But…,” The Washington Post, Aug 14, 1955.

[10] Shin-Han-Min-Bo, May 21, 1920

[11] George Heber Jones was a pioneer in the academic study of Korea and Korean religion and culture. His books include: Korea, the Land, People and Customs (1907) and The Korean Mission of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1910)

[12] “Searched Homes of Seven Missionaries: Six Koreans Found Hiding Sent to Prison,” Boston Daily Globe, Apr 18, 1919.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “391,000 Koreans Slain in Six Weeks: Church Commission Tells of Japanese Atrocities,” Boston Daily Globe, Jul 16, 1919.

[15]“Asks China Be Saved From Japan: Says Expansion of Empire will Lead to War,” Boston Daily Globe, Feb 26, 1921.